Fr. Roderick Vonhögen of CATHOLIC INSIDER has just kindly e-mailed me a transcript he made of a recent broadcast of Vatican Radio dealing with the alleged remarks of then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the Harry Potter books.
The piece was an interview with Msgr. Peter Fleedwood, the Vatican official who initially made (what turn out to be) moderately pro-Potter comments when asked a question about the books at a press conference.
I’ve put the entire text of the interview in the extended body of this post (click below to read it). I should say that I don’t agree with everything Msgr. Fleedwood says (e.g., I don’t think that the Harry Potter books are any great shakes as literature), but reading his side of the story sheds interesting light on the events in question.
In particular, let me call attention to a couple of things he said. First, he mentions something that I thought was likely the case, though I didn’t want to conjecture it without evidence. Msgr. Fleedwood, though, knows the workings of Vatican offices better than I and has more of a basis to say it, so here goes:
I was sent a letter from a lady in Germany who claimed to have
written to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that she thought Harry
Potter was a bad thing. And the letter back, which I suspect was
written by an assistant of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his office,
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that there
was a subtle seduction in the books. What that subtle seduction was,
was not specified, which makes me think it was a generic answer. And
she had written a book on these subjects and so the Cardinal’s
signature was at the bottom of the letter, suggesting she should send
me the book.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Msgr. Fleedwood were correct on this point. Folks in important positions–including those in the Vatican–often use ghostwriters, and it would not be surprising at all to learn that routine correspondence such as thank you notes like the one in question were handled by assistants and then presented for the boss’s signature.
Fr. Fleedwood continues:
She sent me the book, and I found it a very unsatisfactory book. I
don’t think she understands English humour. For example, she said: one
sign that these books are making fun of Judaism and Christianity is
that Voldemort, the wicked magician, who is the great evil power
against whom Harry Potter has to fight, is referred to often as ‘he who
must not be named’, and she takes this as an insult to the name of God
in a similar way that Adonai, which is often written as Yahweh, is the
name that should not be said in Jewish religion. Well I replied to her:
don’t you know that even within English families, men who make fun of
their relationship with women in a nice, lighthearted way say: "Oh, she
who should not be named," meaning the power in the house, their wife.
You know, I think it was meant on that kind of level.
This comment also rings true for me, and for several reasons. First, I’ve seen my share of anti-New Age books that go paranoid in finding connections between things that aren’t there. (I wish people would write more serious and sober anti-New Age books, because the paranoid ones give the whole genre a bad name.)
Second, if you read the Potter books or watch the movies, it’s clear that the people in the stories are themselves being paranoid by not saying the name "Voldemort." As Msgr. Fleedwood points out, Harry Potter has the courage to say the name of his enemy and isn’t cowed by the mere mention of the name, like the others are. Thus Rowling isn’t presenting Voldemort’s name as too sacred to mention, she’s presenting everybody but Harry as being too easily spooked. You may or may not like that literarily, but it isn’t a diss at God.
Third, I have my own experience with circumlocutions of this nature. A few years ago I was dating a woman who turned out to be from the planet Yuggoth (the only one of all the women I’ve ever dated). The experience was so surreal (the phrase "Did not know what men are for" comes to mind) that, among the circle of my friends who were aware of the experience at the time, she has become known as "She Who Is Not To Be Named."
Anyway, click below for Msgr. Fleedwood’s comments, courtesy of Fr. Roderick Vonhögen.
Speak Of The Devil…
Transcript of the Vatican Radio program 105, live on Thursday, July 14, 2005.
By Fr. Roderick Vonhögen (www.catholicinsider.com)
We turn to an event taking place on the 16th of July, one much awaited by the fans of the best-selling Harry Potter books, the publication of the sixth in this series: Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince. Simply because world media is suggesting pope Benedict XVI believes these books put readers on a slippery slope with their subtle seduction and distortion of Christianity in the world.
"Put perhaps", says monsignor Peter Fleedwood, an expert on New Age and former official at the Pontifical Council for Culture, "no offense, the lady who complained to the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about Joanna Rowling’s popular series back in 2003, may not have quite understood a very British sense of humour".
Monsignor Fleedwood also recalls how he was first asked about Harry Potter at a press conference in the Vatican during the presentation of the New Age document by the title of "Jesus Christ, Bearer of the Water of Life" in February 2003.
"I’ve been asked by a lot of people if they should allow their children to read Joanna Rowling’s books about the trainee-magician Harry Potter. And the reason why they ask is that they’ve heard that some of the content is anti-Christian. I can’t see that personally. I was asked once in a press-conference in the Vatican whether I thought the witchcraft and magic in Harry Potter was a bad thing, and I said to the people present: ‘did anyone in this room grow up without stories about witches and fairies and magic and spells and mystery and so on and so forth?’, and everyone seemed to agree that none of us had grown up without those things. And then I said: ‘did it make us into enemies of the faith, or enemies of God, or enemies of the Church?’ And people seemed to say: ‘no, no’. And I said: ‘well, I can’t see any problem with Harry Potter, because, really, all the stories are about the victory of good over evil’. People say: ‘yes, but Harry uses magic spells!’ Well, that’s only a kind of literary device to keep children interested. It’s not putting forth a theory about magic. I know lots of teachers in England, and they’ve all said to me: ‘How remarkable! All of a sudden we don’t have to ask children to read books!’ There’s been a real craze. The unfortunate thing is, people call it a ‘cult book’ and then mad people say: ‘oh, it’s a cult’ – meaning a religious cult, and it’s not!
It’s just a fashion, because every child tells every other child: you should read Harry Potter. So they’ve all read all the books, and they all know all the details and so on and so forth. And the teachers I know in England just say simply: ‘isn’t it marvelous that kids want to read? We don’t have to force them to read’. And many parents have said the same thing.
And parents have asked me about Harry Potter’s books. I’ve always said: why don’t you read them? Or read them with your children, or read them to your children. Or you read them first and see if you can see anything bad.
I was sent a letter from a lady in Germany who claimed to have written to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that she thought Harry Potter was a bad thing. And the letter back, which I suspect was written by an assistant of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that there was a subtle seduction in the books. What that subtle seduction was, was not specified, which makes me think it was a generic answer. And she had written a book on these subjects and so the Cardinal’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, suggesting she should send me the book.
She sent me the book, and I found it a very unsatisfactory book. I don’t think she understands English humour. For example, she said: one sign that these books are making fun of Judaism and Christianity is that Voldemort, the wicked magician, who is the great evil power against whom Harry Potter has to fight, is referred to often as ‘he who must not be named’, and she takes this as an insult to the name of God in a similar way that Adonai, which is often written as Yahweh is the name that should not be said in Jewish religion. Well I replied to her: don’t you know that even within English families, men who make fun of their relationship with women in a nice, lighthearted way say: oh, she who should not be named, meaning the power in the house, their wife. You know, I think it was meant on that kind of level.
In any case though, the very people who complain about such things are the ones who would want priests above all, and teachers within the catholic faith, to speak about the devil, and to name the devil, rather then to speak of some abstract, evil force. Harry Potter is the only one, in the Harry Potter books, who names evil: Voldemort. The ‘flight of death’ if you like, that’s what his name literally means. So Harry is the one that doesn’t avoid naming evil, or naming the evil one. Harry is doing exactly what those people want, and showing by his lack of fear of evil, that he believes that goodness will triumph.
And in fact, Rowling’s books all follow the classical mythological pattern and good always triumphs over evil. She studied classical mythology at the university and uses that structure of myth as the basis of the way she writes her novels. She also was brought up as a Christian and I mentioned that in the famous press conference. People quoted that as saying that I had said that her books were imbued with Christian morals. I said no such thing. I simply suggested that there’s no ignoring your own background. I also said that she’s not the kind Christian your average zealous priest might want, in the sense of practicing religion every week, but there is no denying that she has a Christian background. I said no more.
And people have obviously worked of a strange translation of what I said in Italian. It is notable that the only complaints I got were from people using a translation. I don’t know who made that translation. They never asked me any questions about whether they got it right. They certainly didn’t understand what I’d said in the press conference. So I only whish there had been more time to talk then, but the press conference was about something quite different, and it was only one question that was blown out of proportion.
But I remain firmly convinced that the Harry Potter novels are very well written. They are written on the classical plot of good versus evil in the standard way that the old myths were written. The characters are built up around that: the goodies and the baddies so to speak, and I can’t see that that’s a bad thing for children, when goodness and the people on the side of goodness are portrayed as the ones who will eventually win. Harry’s enemies resort to all sorts of evil things, and they are the ones who loose in the end. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, and I can’t see that does any harm to children.
What my advice would still be to parents: if you’re in doubt, read the books yourselves, the first one, that’s the shortest one, and see what you think. Don’t simply rely on somebody else’s opinion, not even on my opinion, since it’s only an opinion. But it’s probably a good thing to enjoy it and to see that there are no evil influences there.
Some of the people who complain to me quote a priest who has worked in Rome and has been described as the exorcist of Rome, saying that evil is just behind every line in the books. Well, I answered that by saying: I’m a priest as well, I’m not as holy as that man, but his is an opinion and mine is an opinion, and neither of us automatically has a right to the opinion being more authoritative. I would say you’d have to prove a thing like that, when you say that evil is behind every sentence. I can’t see it.
Maybe I’m blind, as one article about me said, maybe I’m stupid and doing the devil’s work, as another article about me said. I have a funny feeling I’m not doing the devil’s work, and I have another feeling I am not blind or stupid. I just think that there’s a lot of scare-mongering going on, particularly among people who do like to find the devil around every corner. I don’t think that’s a healthy view of the world. And as I said before, I’m one of the people who would name the devil, I don’t keep the devil out of my preaching or out of my understanding of Christianity; I’m one of the few that would mention him, so I don’t know where these people get their mad ideas. And I do think do think they are mad ideas.
I think one has to be quite calm in judging cultural phenomena. I’ve got a funny feeling that the success of Rowling is what started some people. Is it a kind of envy? I don’t know. But why they got so mad against her, I just don’t understand.
Another problem is comparing the Harry Potter books to the Lord of the Rings. I think they are very different sorts of literature really. Tolkien needed to entertain his children. He was a professor of ancient English or Middle English, and he knew all this runic language that he invented is part of a world he constructed, originally to keep himself amused and his children amused. And this whole world is the world in which the Silmarillion and the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings take place, whereas Harry Potter is just set in the amusing setting, if you’re an English person or a British person, of a public school, which is anything but public if people know what a public school is. It’s very private. My parents could not afford to send me there but that’s the world where Joanne Rowling said young witches and wizards would be trained. It’s obviously a totally nonsensical idea; it’s not constructing a world the way Tolkien did in the Lord of the Rings and so on. It’s much more down to earth and normal and banal if you like. It’s just a setting for an adventure between good and evil to take place. And she has an amazing talent of writing books that you don’t want to put down, that’s all there is going on there."
Former official at the Pontifical Council for culture, Msgr. Peter Fleedwood is currently working at the Council for European bishops’ conferences.